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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

Napoleon and the British

By Stuart Semmel

Semmel, Stuart. Napoleon and the British. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ., 2004. 354 pages. ISBN# 0300090013. Hardcover. $40/25.

In 1815, Napoleon was, to establishment Britain, as represented by the editor of the Times, "the vile Corsican! ... a Wretch! ... a notorious Impostor! ... a mere Brigand! ... that cowardly and perfidious Traitor! ... the Arch Rebel! ... the Corsican usurper! ... l'Empereur de la Canaille ..." Or so a broadside entitled Buonapartephobia reported, ridiculing the extreme rhetoric used to vilify the former Emperor. William Hazlitt, Napoleon's admiring biographer, was to observe that "Every body knows that it is only necessary to raise a bugbear before the English imagination in order to govern it at will."

In response to the French Revolution and the creation of the French empire, there arose an extreme form of popular "loyalism" in Britain"the heart-on-sleeve popular conservative ideology that proclaimed (sometimes in bombastic tones) love for king and country." For those espousing this view, Britain was "the only bar that stands between Napoleon and the empire of the world," conveniently ignoring Britain's own imperial ambitions. In its most extreme form, loyalism could almost cheer Prussia's defeat at Jena by Napoleon as fulfilling Britain's messianic destiny to stand alone against the French tide. Wordsworth decried a future where Britain "shall have no more formidable enemies [and thus bring about] the extinction of all that [Britain] previously contained of [the] good and great..." The poet continued, "If a nation have nothing to oppose or to fear without, it cannot escape decay and concussion within." Britain was searching for a sense of identity and Napoleon was to become a key yardstick by which Britain could define itself.

Stuart Semmel has produced an imaginative look at the variety of opinion on Napoleon's rise, progress and fall. A study of what was written about Napoleon, and what was written about him necessarily affected what was thought about Napoleon or at least what the writers wanted Britons to think about Napoleon. Semmel has consulted a myriad of contemporary speeches, pamphlets, broadsides, poems, quarterly reviews, caricatures, plays, newspapers, songs, diaries, etc. of all stripes to explore the protean opinions of the British. Because Napoleon refused to be easily categorized many British observers had difficulties pinning him down. Was he monarchical or Jacobinical? Was he the destroyer of religion or its restorer? Did he continue the Revolution or end it? Was he a "pygmy" or a "Colossus?" Robert Southey who was criticizing the Consular government for not concentrating power in the executive in 1800 was complaining about Napoleon's tyrannical power a few years later.

Loyalist commentators used the chameleon-like Napoleon as the antipode to all that was "British," while the opposition were as often to see Napoleon as something less than the Beast of Revelations and sometimes as a polestar. If to the extreme loyalist churchmen the "French Devil" was Satan incarnate, a "fiend from hell," to the extreme anti-anti-Napoleonists like William Hamilton Reid he was an "agent of the Messiah." For Britain's conservative Protestant ministers Napoleon was an atheist, a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim"the professor and disbeliever of all religions"while some praised him as the scourge of the Papacy.

The British could cast all the contradictory epithets and accusations at the French emperor without concern whether taken as a whole they made up a coherent narrative, whether or not they made sense, much less whether they were true or provable, because it didn't matter as long as some of them resonated with the British population. Even individual commentators might swing wildly in opinion from year to year. Richard Whately (Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte) asked rhetorically if the story of Napoleon "had been fabricated for the express purpose of amusing the English nation, could it have been contrived more ingeniously?"

Even before the Revolution the enmity between Britain and France was long-standing. Whereas before the revolution the British saw the French as effete and frivolous, anti-Christian (Papism being unchristian), slavishly subservient to authority, afterwards the French character traits had somehow transmuted to savagery, anarchy and anti-Christian (atheistic). Under Napoleon the fickle French returned to their pre-Revolutionary character as "dust-licking slaves." The French were "true spaniels, who ever fawn and lick where they are worst treated," they were "unfit for freedom," "vindictive, and cowardly, "rapacious Assassins."

The renewal of war in 1803 saw the unleashing of, in Semmel's view, a propaganda campaign "unprecedented in its scope." Pamphlets, caricatures, handbills and songs were churned out by writers and artists, under the supervision of a handful of publishers, assuring a "remarkable uniformity of message and image." Broadsides were "all calculated to raise in the lower classes," one publisher stated, "a just detestation of the character and base designs of the enemy." Some of these publications were subsidized by the government, while others were purchased by "noblemen, magistrates, and gentlemen" for distribution to the less fortunate.

In an effort to enlist the laboring classeswho only a few years earlier Burke was calling the "swinish multitude"in resisting the expected French invasion, broadside writers raised the fearsome vision of rapine and horror which would result if the French landed. With a deep down fear that the poor would be more likely to welcome the French than fight them, the broadsides claimed that the poor would be "turned out in gangs like galley slaves." Those not lucky enough to be enslaved, Napoleon would transport or massacre." The wives, mothers and daughters of the poor would be raped, while their meager possessions would be pillaged and French troops quartered in their homes. France, which had been turned into "one immense brothel" under the principles of the Revolution, a land where the violation of women had been included in the "rights of man," would turn good English women into prostitutes.

If that wasn't bad enough the Englishman would be forced to give up their roast beef and porter for roasted frogs and "salad." British children would be sent abroad to be "Frenchified" and to learn to speak French, while their older siblings would be flogged for speaking English. The young men would be impressed into the French armies. William Cobbett claimed the French "would affix badges upon us, mark us in the cheek, shave our heads, split our ears, or clothe us in the habits of slaves." London would be renamed "Bonapart-opolis;" Britain's government would be shot in Hyde Park. Trade would dry up and wages would plummet. The Poor Laws would be overturned, and Englishmen would be forced to become "citizens of the world."

Even the war itself threatened British institutions. William Cobbett, still in his "loyalist" phase, could equally decry the dropping of George III's claim to the French crown and the waning of bull-baiting as sure signs of the fall of British civilization and the degeneracy of the British character. The loyalists' Napoleon-phobia betrayed a deep cultural unease, an undercurrent of fear and a severe "millennial anxiety about the future of Britain."

Napoleon was attacked for his "foreignness." Even though Corsica had been annexed to France before Napoleon's birth, Napoleon was criticized as a "foreign" despot, "Corsican upstart" and "Corsican usurper" were frequent epithets. The use of the Italian spelling of Napoleon's namesNapoleone and Buonaparte (or even Buonapart)was another strategy to emphasize his "otherness." The Italian spelling linked Napoleon, in the popular mind, with "the low cunning and revengeful spirit of an Italian." One pamphlet boasted that's its use of Buonaparte would prevent Napoleon's old name "from sinking wholly into oblivion"as if such a thing was possible considering its ubiquitous use. The pamphlet went on to assert un-ironically that "despotic as he may be, [Napoleon could not] make every person to write [his name] after the same way."

At the heart of the loyalist critique of Napoleon was the concept of legitimacy (a concept which probably equally consumed Napoleon). Wordsworth, the former republican turned loyalist, compared the French return to monarchy in the guise of Napoleon's imperial crown to a dog returning to its own vomit. Others continued with the Jacobin trope-refusing to abandon an epithet that they had sent so much energy upon and that had for so long served them wellonly to name Napoleon a Jacobin crowned. The opposition, on the other hand, used Napoleon's self-made crown as a means of critiquing hereditary monarchy.

On a deeper level Napoleon was like a tailor's dummy on which British loyalists could pin all their fears and anxietiesfears of modernity, of change, of the lower classes, of reform, of the decay of a largely mythical British character, of Catholic, Jewish or female emancipation, etc. Napoleon was a means to renew all that had been seemingly lost in modern times by allowing loyalists to define British in opposition to whatever characteristics the writer which to impart to the chameleon-like Napoleon. A use to which modern inheritors of the "black legend" still put him. Alan Schom or Paul Johnson would be readily recognizable to readers of Lewis Goldsmith or Henry Redhead Yorke.

The most interesting aspect of Semmel's book is the discussion of those in Britain who refused to follow the government line on Napoleon. Unlike some in Britain like Coleridge and Wordsworth who, after Napoleon's taking power, renounced their former republicanism for strict loyalism, many radicals were more ambiguous about Napoleon. "To a much greater degree than has been recognized," Semmel comments, "many British radicals continued to have kind words to say about Napoleon, and continued to use him as a cudgel with which to chastise their own rulers." To some extent the extreme nature of many of the loyalist assaults on anyone seeking to reform the current system forced radicals to turn to Napoleon to critique the establishment. In the end, Napoleon "functioned in British radical argument as a counter-monarch...he posed a contrasting case that enable the interrogation of monarchy."

Responding to criticisms of Napoleon as an "upstart," the opposition for example referred to the Wellesleys as an "upstart family." Others asked how could Napoleon be a "usurper" when he had been called to the throne by the French people. Radical journalists responding to the loyalists concerns questioning Napoleon's legitimacy pointed to Britain's Glorious Revolution. To prove his political illegitimacy Napoleon's loyalist critics questioned Napoleon's biological legitimacy. It wasn't enough for Napoleon to be an "upstart" and "usurper," but he had "sprung from Nobody knows whom." Coleridge writes of Napoleon's "reputed father, the Scrivener of Ajaccio." Napoleon's mother was described as a common prostitute. Lewis Goldsmith, never one to miss an opportunity to vilify his enemy, referred to Napoleon's "bastard family."

Other opposition critics also drew parallels between Napoleon's actions and Britain's. Napoleon's imperial ambitions were compared to Britain's, Napoleon's assaults on "innocent" nations compared to Britain's attacks on Denmark, Napoleon's destruction of the Inquisition and the imprisoning of the Pope compared to Britain's persecution of Catholics in Ireland. Napoleon's recently-minted titles were compared to the relatively recent origins of Britain's own royal family and the equally recently-minted imperial title of the Austrian king. Some radical argued that despite everything for many in Europe the French conquerors were an improvement their own home-grown "tyrants." William Cobbett, almost a special case, claimed that the government had done more harm to the English Constitution that Napoleon ever had. Napoleon, Cobbett observed, had introduced trail by jury to France while the Ministry was eroding it in Britain.

The opposition's embrace of Napoleon scarcely survived his first downfall. Most readily accepted the Bourbon restoration. One radical newspaper blamed its former apparent support of Napoleon on the "rancour, and prejudice and servility" of the ministerial press. William Cobbett however expressed no surprise that the loyalist Times on Napoleon's fall was calling for "NO PEACE WITH JAMES MADISON"truly going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Henry Redhead Yorke attacked even the infant King of Rome, Napoleon's son, as a "baboon" who "must perish for the crimes of his parent" and Marie Louise as a "young prostitute."

After Napoleon's return from Elba and the declaration of the liberal empire, the opposition's support and admiration for Napoleon was more enthusiastic and open than it had been during the war. Byron, whose ode to Napoleon after his first abdication criticized Napoleon for failing to kill himself, excused the Emperor for "falsifying every line of mine Ode." Napoleon went from child of Fortune to child of Misfortune almost overnight and his exile to St. Helena only made the former "tyrant" into a victim. Loyalists predictably saw Napoleon in exile as "a froward child," while equally predictable the opposition found in captivity something Promethean.

To the radicals St. Helena was the "grave of British honour," and the government was unsportingly kicking a man while he was down. Others legalistically asserted that once within British jurisdiction Napoleon should have been subject to British laws including habeas corpus and trial by jury. They also pointed out that the decision to exile the former emperor had been made without consulting Parliament. Parliament had to retroactively pass a law to regularize what was a fait accompli. On St. Helena even the debate over national caricatures got turned on its head as some in the opposition accused Governor Lowe of having adopted the characteristics of the Corsican due to his having commanded a Corsican regiment of "fellons" and other cut-throats.

To assume that that all the anti-anti-Napoleonists were Jacobins, fellow-travelers, or "useful idiots" would be to to accept on face value the loyalists' characterization of them. Whether in the McCarthy era or our own, the book demonstrates the long-term futility of the extreme rhetoric on both ends of the political spectrum, where ideology overwhelms common sense. The difference was that writers in the Opposition were very likely to pay for their exercise of free speech with prosecution in court or a lengthy prison terms. The most absurd case was Thomas J. Wooler, publisher of the radical Black Dwarf, who was arrested in the spring of 1817 and charged with "a libel upon King John, King Charles the First, King James the second, and King William the third: besides the commons house of Parliament, and the whole people of England, under the familiar appellation of John Bull."

One of the strangest incidents concerning Napoleon's political illegitimacy involved the death of Princess Charlotte, the heiress presumptive to the British throne. Her death in childbirth in November 1817 meant that after George III's sons, none of whom had legitimate heirs (Victoria wouldn't be born until 1819), the line of succession would pass to the Continental branches of the family. Third in line to the throne was Princess Catherine of Wrttemberg, the third cousin to Princess Charlotte and wife of Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother. If Catherine's two cousins died without issue, Catherine and Jerome's son would wear the British crown, and a Bonaparte would be the legitimate king of Britain. Radicals salivated at the thought of their former legitimist persecutors having to bend their knees in honor of a nephew of the "Corsican upstart."

Napoleon's role for many Britons was as ambiguous and protean then as it is today. Those with strong, clear, unchanging and unnuanced opinions, whether pro or con, are those whose opinions were most actuated by ideology. In the end, Semmel observes Napoleon "would continue to be a subject of historical controversy, about whom radically contradictory things could be written, and would continue to inspire artistic production...But later British treatments of Napoleon were, interestingly, independent salvoes...rather than thrusts and parries in an ongoing battle." But the rhetoric of the battles of the early nineteenth century continued to inform many later writers.

Not a history of Napoleon (Semmel avoids expressing his own opinion on Napoleon), actual facts of Napoleon's life are largely irrelevant to Semmel's account. Instead this is a history of British opinion about Napoleon. Opinion doesn't necessarily need to be strictly based on facts and often wasn't. After all British mothers were allegedly frightening their wayward offspring with the bogeyman of boney coming to get them. Throughout Napoleon's public life a debate raged in the British political (and literary) press. Any politically aware Briton could not help having been caught up in the torrent and often tossed upon its stormy seas.

Semmel summarizes a wealth of contemporary political rhetoric from a wide variety of sources which the reader will never encounter on their own without immersing oneself in the ephemeral literature of the day. Several examples of contemporary political cartoons are presented, but in black-and-white and often too small to read the caricatures' text. Perhaps a section of colored, full-page reproductions would have done better justice to these illustrations.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2005